Although fast fashion has shown itself to be a cheaper, more accessible market to those looking for clothing, the ethical and sustainable health risks correlated with these clothing are disguised throughout the lifecycle of each garment. But from the growth of water-intensive cotton, to the release of untreated dyes into local water sources, to even low wages and poor working conditions for workers, the environmental and social costs involved in textile manufacturing are widespread.
Over the past decade, fast fashion has been taking over the fashion market - expediting the fashion and trend lifecycles. The term “fast” relates to how quickly retailers can move designs from the catwalk to stores, keeping up pace with the constant demand for more and different styles. Fast fashion retailers adapted to these demands by producing readily available, inexpensively made garments. Increased consumption drives the production of inexpensive clothing, and prices are kept down by outsourcing production to low and middle-income countries. This is where we begin to run into issues, and the risks associated become much clearer.
In this article, we will cover:
- What Is Fast Fashion?
- How Did Fast Fashion Happen?
- How Has Fast Fashion Become A Global Environmental Justice Issue?
- Are There Solutions To Fast Fashion As Consumers?
What Is Fast Fashion?
As previously mentioned, fast fashion retailers are brands who create readily available, inexpensively made clothing. The garments produced usually consist of trendy clothing that sample ideas from the catwalk or celebrity culture, in turn, created for high street stores at breakneck speed to meet consumer demand. The goal with fast fashion retailers is to get the newest styles on the market as fast as possible, allowing shoppers to quickly purchase them while they are still at the height of their popularity.
The result creates an instant gratification - you can present yourself as fashionable and on trend, a way to create relevance among the community. However, it plays into the idea that outfit repeating is a fashion faux pas. If you want to stay relevant and trendy, you have the latest looks as they happen. It forms a key part of the toxic system of overproduction and consumption that has made fashion one of the world’s largest polluters.
If you were to step back in time a bit, however, this idea of instant gratification when it came to fashion and the trend cycle was not as apparent. In the past, clothes shopping was an event - something that happened a few times a year when the seasons changed or when we outgrew what we had. You might buy a new outfit for a special occasion, but most of the time, the society in which we lived in was not nearly as frivolous as we are today.
When it came to fashion design as a whole, the trend cycle was much longer than it is today, with designers creating collections based on an overarching dominant style reflective of the period. With the birth of haute couture in Paris at the start of the mid-19th century and the development of prêt-à-porter in Italy in the nineteen-sixties, the luxury market of fashion found designers dropping collections much more seasonally. You would often find houses releasing a Spring/Summer Collection, a Fall/Winter Collection, and for some, a Resort Collection annually, with collections showcased heavily during highly anticipated fashion shows. Collections could take six or more months to plan, be produced, and executed to the designer’s vision. Evenmoreso, the market was met with a waiting period before being able to purchase any designs from the collection.
But about 20 years ago, the market and global revolution of the fashion industry created a change that broke this pattern. Clothes became cheaper, trend cycles sped up, and shopping became a hobby, allowing for fast fashion and the global chains to enter. Many viewed this transition as the “democratization” of fashion, and these retailers proved that they had what it takes to stay, no matter what the costs are. Haute couture brands found themselves competing for their market’s attention, and in turn, collection life cycles became shorter, more brands created monthly and weekly drops rather than focusing on traditional fashion shows, and the market became more demanding in making purchases quicker.
How Did Fast Fashion Happen?
To truly understand how fast fashion began, there are many factors in which one can look at. But in order to dissect these factors, one must step back in time a bit to the Industrial Revolution and the widespread market expansion of the sewing machine.
Before the Industrial Revolution, the production of clothing and other garments was rather slow - and for many, one had to source their own materials like wool or leather, then prepare and weave the materials in order to make clothes. But with the introduction of new technologies and market expansions that further advanced the Industrial Revolution, clothing production to a full new form.
By the 1880s, large mills and factories produced fabric and garments including overcoats, petticoats, shirts, trousers, gloves, hats, and footwear. However, despite the rapid increase of ready-to-wear garment factories, many items of clothing were still handmade - tailored for the wearer. Those who could afford it, most wealthy and upper middle class women, would take samples of fashion illustrations to a seamstress, who would adapt the garment design to the customer's measurements. Many middle-class to lower-class women would find these illustrations and copy them themselves.
In the late 19th century, department stores introduced the idea of consolidating large amounts of mass produced goods for public consumption. By the early 20th century department stores began to feature “knock-offs”. In 1902 Marshall Fields' offered copied couture dresses for $25.00 compared to $75.00 for the upscale version. Ready-to-wear and mass production of clothing was becoming more popular than ever. The markets involved wanted to blur the lines of when it came to class separation, leading to many involved in the industry catching on.
As mass production increased, the style of clothing became more simplified. In order to offer more affordable apparel, the amount of fabric and embellishments needed for construction decreased. However, garments were generally well made and could last for years. Furthermore, the mid 20th century brought an overall rise in US wages and a growth of the middle class, allowing for an increase in purchasing power.
By the 1960s and 70s, young people were creating new trends as counter-culture more widely began to emerge. Clothing began to emulate these trends, and the culture of fashion changed rapidly along with it - marking a time where high fashion did not reign supreme. An era of consumerism and mass production further bloomed.
In the late 1990s and 2000s, low-cost fashion reached a peak through the proliferation of counter-cultures and increased forms of self-expression. Online shopping took off, and fast-fashion retailers like H&M, Zara, and Topshop took over. These brands took the looks and design elements from the top fashion houses and reproduced them quickly and cheaply. With everyone now able to shop for on-trend clothes whenever they wanted, it’s easy to understand how the phenomenon caught on. Seasonal fashion was no more.
With the rise of Instagram and social media as well, consumers and brands have found themselves at a crossroad. Fashion brands and houses are finding themselves losing the power that they once had, consumers now acting as contributors in trend forecasting, marketing, and much more. Social media has allowed anyone and everyone to be their own fashion model, and the pressure to not repeat the same outfit twice has become a concern for many wanting to be influencers. Many brands have shifted to using influencers in their marketing to allow for more instant gratification for consumers, always striving to push to be the newest and best trend. Brands understand that we want it - and social media created an environment in which the market can see it, want it, and within seconds, possibly obtain it.
How Has Fast Fashion Become A Global Environmental Justice Issue?
According to an article published in the Environmental Health Journal, “80 billion pieces of new clothing are purchased each year, translating to $1.2 trillion annually for the global fashion industry globally.” They have found that the majority of these products are assembled in China and Bangladesh, while the United States consumes more clothing and textiles than any other nation in the world. Approximately 85% of the clothing Americans consume, estimated to total nearly 3.8 billion pounds annually, is sent to landfills as solid waste. This nearly amounts to 80 pounds per American per year.
As mentioned in the previous sections of this article, the global Industrial Revolution, along with the rise of globalization and growth of a global economy as a whole, contribute to the ongoing need to produce clothing outside of the United States. While industrial disasters, such as the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire we often associate with the push of improved working conditions and occupational protections in the United States, the same cannot be said for lower income or impoverished countries. In response, the global health costs associated with the production of cheap clothing have become quite substantial. The hazardous conditions once seen in the United States and other Unions have simply just shifted overseas, and the social costs associated with the global textile and garment industry became quite significant as well.
When one thinks about environmental justice, we often associate its concept as having primarily been used in practice. One will use environmental justice to describe the disproportionate placement of superfund sites, such as hazardous waste sites, often in or near POC communities, especially within the United States. However, the term of environmental justice goes well beyond just the United States and acts as a global issue. For example, the textile and garment industries have rapidly shifted the environmental and occupational burdens caused by mass production and disposal from high income countries to the under-resourced. Here are some reasons as to how the textile and garment industries associated with fast fashion are causing global injustices:
Excessive Water Usage:
The textile and garment industries are well-known for using an excessive amount of water during their processes, consuming one tenth of all of the water used industrially to run factories and clean products. To put this into perspective, it takes over 10,000 liters of water to produce one kilogram of cotton or approximately 3,000 liters of water for one cotton shirt. Textile dyeing also requires toxic chemicals that eventually end up in our oceans, and approximately 20% of the wastewater worldwide is attributed to this process according to the United Nations Environment Programme. With factories moving overseas due to cheaper costs and available resources, they may be in countries without strict environmental regulations, resulting in untreated water entering the oceans. This water created is extremely toxic and, in most cases, cannot be treated to become safe again.
While getting finished garments to consumers in high-income countries is ultimately seen as the end of the manufacturing chain in the fashion industry, issues continue long after the garment is sold to a consumer. The fast fashion model encourages the market to view clothing as disposable. In fact, according to Alden Wicker’s article Fast Fashion Is Creating Environmental Injustice, “the average American throws away approximately 80 pounds of clothing and textiles annually, occupying nearly 5% of landfill space.” That being said, clothing not sent directly to the landfill often ends up in a second-hand clothing trade. Furthermore, Wicker reported that in 2015, the United States exported more than $700 million worth of used clothing. The second-hand clothing not sold in the United States market is compressed into 1000-pound bales and exported overseas to be “graded” (sorted, categorized and re-baled) and resold in lower income markets. Clothing not sold in markets becomes solid waste, clogging rivers, greenways, and parks, and creating the potential for additional environmental health hazards in lower or impoverished communities lacking vigorous municipal waste systems.
Usage of Viscose:
Viscose, also known as rayon, is fiber made from wood pulp that was introduced in 1890 as a cheaper alternative to cotton for production. It has extremely detrimental effects on the environment such as the usage of harmful chemicals and the unethical resourcing for the material. As the companies use toxic chemicals, others are worried about other impacts beyond environmental factors. For instance, carbon disulphide used in viscose fiber production can cause extreme health side effects on workers.
Are There Solutions To Fast Fashion As Consumers?
Fast fashion should not be viewed as the cheaper alternative, but rather the more damaging alternative. The best way to bring fast fashion to an end is by being a smarter consumer. When it comes to purchasing clothing and other garments, we tend to think of a quote by British designer Vivienne Westwood: “buy less, choose well, make it last.”
For many, the easiest way to approach not buying fast fashion is by thrifting. Buying vintage and second hand offers a refreshing and sustainable way to shop, allowing you to add items to your wardrobe without using additional resources in the manufacturing process. It is a way to give unwanted items a second life, and to discover unique and special pieces along the way. An alternative to thrifting can also be revamping your own clothing. Finding DIY projects to alter your old clothing is an easy way to experiment with trends, while again not giving in to purchasing disposable clothing.
Another way to avoid fast fashion is by creating a capsule closet. A capsule wardrobe or capsule closet was introduced by British fashion icon Susie Faux in the 1970s. The traditional capsule utilizes a collection of anywhere from 10-30 practical and versatile pieces of clothing put together to create an entire wardrobe. It pairs high quality basics with a mix of more trendier items, enabling you to build countless, interchangeable outfits from fewer items. A recent study on capsule wardrobes by the International Journal of Market Research had promising results, showing “a positive impact of a 3-week capsule wardrobe on our participants who felt less stressed, detached from fashion trends, have found joy in their fashion style, and enhanced their awareness of conscious consumption.”
Finally, a huge way to not support fast fashion is to support companies who use sustainable materials and practice corporate sustainability. When it comes to the sustainability of a fiber, one should review the practices and policies a company uses to reduce environmental pollution and minimize the exploitation of people or natural resources in meeting lifestyle needs. Across the board, natural cellulosic and protein fibers are thought to be better for the environment and for human health, but in some cases, manufactured fibers are thought to be more sustainable. The use of sustainable fibers will be key in minimizing the environmental impact of textile production. With this said, it is important to research a company’s sustainability practices. There are corporations who engage in the process of “greenwashing,” capitalizing on the emotional appeal of eco-friendly and fair trade goods. Look for accredited and certified companies when possible.
In the decades since the fast fashion business model became the norm within the fashion industry, the increase in demand for the disproportionate large amounts of inexpensive clothing has resulted in vast environmental injustices along every step of the supply chain. By analyzing the root causes of these issues, the next steps are easier to understand as one can connect the dots and create solutions. Doing background research on brands, being a sustainable consumer, and steering your purchases in a manner that aligns with your environmental values are all ways to start - but engaging in further conversation will take this one step further.